NBC’s current “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” policy with new series is what has allowed something as inventive as Siberia to exist. Unfortunately, running it in the same timeslot as CBS’s Under the Dome, which had spectacular ratings last week, may seal its fate. Still, Siberia differentiates itself by aiming to be a combination of Lost, Survivor and The Blair Witch Project, masking its paranormal twists and frights in the guise of a reality show in a way that’s almost too realistic for its own good.
“Siberia,” the reality show-within-the-show, is of the survivalist variety. Fourteen strangers from all around the world are blindfolded and dropped into the Siberian wilderness and must fend for themselves. The game, which is mostly without rules, is about surviving the winter by any means necessary (the show starts out in what looks like late summer) to collect and share the eventual cash prize. The contestants are only allowed the clothes on their backs, as well as the shelter provided by two primitive cabins that are replicas of settlements from a century ago, though twists could appear at any time. Essentially: Hunger Games. Hit the jump for more.
There are many more nuances to the reality show setup: there is a safety button that will call in a helicopter if necessary, and players may forfeit at any tim, but could also get voted off. Those who remain until the finish will split a prize of $500,000. The host describes the game as a “social experiment,” and in the pilot, everyone begins acting just as they would in any regular reality series: bonding, lying, forming alliances, etc.
Some of NBC’s marketing for the series suggests the network hopes some viewers will be confused into thinking the series is truly a reality show. To be fair, there are enough elements in the pilot to make it feel that way — too many, in fact. If one were to approach the show without any knowledge about its faux reality status, it would be exceptionally easy to get drawn into its exact replication of any bog-standard reality series: the music, the banter, the one-on-one interviews, the twists in the rules and the stereotypes represented by the contestants (spoiled model, weak but handy nerd, rogue meathead, cranky older guy, etc) all feel familiar.
The series’ strength in the pilot should come from this finely-tuned satire. Unfortunately, it’s so finely-tuned that it mostly plays out exactly as a reality pilot would, which makes it fairly dull and predictable. On the other hand, knowing that something wicked this way comes, the usually lame comments and rote personality types suddenly take on a sinister shade. Will selfishness now get you killed? “We don’t want a lord of the flies situation,” one nervous contestant says halfway through the pilot.
The paranormal aspects, the show’s biggest draw, are dropped in subtly to start. The settlement is considered “cursed” by locals, and is a spooky outpost whose inhabitants suddenly disappeared without a trace a hundred years ago. Contestant Sabina, who is oddly not followed by a camera, is already at one of the cabins when two of the other contestants arrived who should have been first … who is she, and how did she get there? Strange noises emanate from the woods, a three-legged frog is found, and at the very end of the episode, a fatal “accident” causes production to halt. But who or what caused the bloodshed and death?
Siberia has promise, despite the fact that the exact audience it needs to attract will probably be tuned in to CBS at 10 p.m. instead. Since the reality show ruse — which drags in the first hour — should more or less be over at the end of the pilot, subsequent episodes should start to break the formula more, and open up into Lost territory, complete with creepy sirens, suspicious deaths and some “others.” The point of the reality show is to see how people rebuild civilization, while the framing drama is a thriller about paranormal activity. It’s an odd mix, but it could work, depending on how soon the reveals begin to happen, and what they end up being. Of course, the best ending Siberia could have is to show that the producers were the real puppet-masters of the horror. After all, that would make the series more real than any currently on the air.
Siberia premieres Monday, July 1st at 10 p.m. on NBC.